What happens when reporters double as pundits

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  • Mistler
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  • teachable moments

Any hopes by the LePage administration and Republicans that they would receive fair treatment from the media must have been pretty much dashed by what they have read and heard since the election. Much of the reporting and opining has taken on a harshly critical tone.

Among the critics has been Steve Mistler, a political reporter for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He also blogs and a recent effort entitled “Team LePage’s Teachable Moment” begins this way:

“Nuggets from the notebook while waiting for Gov.-elect Paul LePage to unveil his secret plan for health care …”

“Secret plan”? That should be enough to alert readers about what is being offered: a critique in which the writer’s antipathy toward Republicans will come across clearly. And so it does.

Mistler contends that that ridding the state of the feeble DirigoChoice program is a bad thing.

And he argues that calling the program “Diri-gone” as Tarren Bragdon, the Governor’s advisor, has done is demeaning to the 14,000 enrolled in it. This is more of an exposition of the writer’s state of mind than anything else.

Dirigo is a costly state program that is demonstrably failing and highly unpopular. Its promoters originally believed at least 130,000 would sign up and it would substantially reduce health insurance costs for thousands of Mainers.

Blogger opinion not withstanding, Dirigo has done neither. Not even close. After years of futile experimenting it’s obvious the initiative does not work and should be replaced by something that does. So it’s good for Maine that Dirigo will, in fact, soon be “Diri-gone.”

But Mistler does not restrict his attention to LePage. He moves on to Sen. Susan Collins, against whom opponents have launched an ongoing softening-up campaign. Probably to weaken her for a return clash with left-winger Chellie Pingree in four years.

The opponents’ current tactic involves leveraging a difference of opinion between between Sen. Collins and Sarah Palin into a political catfight they hope will demean both. Mistler jumps enthusiastically into that.

His sources are interesting: Pundits on the left-leaning MSNBC network. A far-left columnist for the Washington Post. And, worst of all, commentary from an obscure website called “Collins Watch,” which exists solely to create trouble for the Senator.

A one-sided lineup for sure. So there’s nothing in this blog to indicate that Mistler is even trying to be anything like fair and balanced.

Such opining by a political reporter is not helpful to newspapers. It could be bad, as well, for radio and television news if anchors and reporters mixed news and opinion. But mostly they do not. This is mainly a problem with the press.

When polls show the public has little confidence in the media’s credibility, columns or blogs like Mistler’s are likely what they have in mind. Readers are not dumb. When they realize reporters on whom they have relied to present the news objectively have disturbing biases they recoil. Then newspapers suffer.

Newspapers simply cannot continue to lose readers. Granted, many migrate to more convenient or less costly sources of information such as cable news or, increasingly, the internet. But more than a few leave because they don’t want to pay for daily unrebutted political lectures — masking as news –by wiseguys, be they columnists or bloggers, whose credibility is suspect.

There’s nothing basically wrong with publishing controversial opinion pieces on news pages — if they are clearly marked. It’s very important, however, that opinion writers should not double as reporters. Once they have have publicly expressed a bias their ability to report objectively becomes questionable

Furthermore, in papers where opinion columns or blogs appear on news pages instead of on the editorial pages (which are a wholly different story) managements would be well-advised to publish balancing commentary. This is just plain common sense at a time when newspapers need to attract and keep every reader they can.

Perhaps all this represents thinking that could result in a teachable moment for Mr. Mistler and his newsroom colleagues. But don’t count on it.

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